The Middle East Channel

US leadership for a solution in the Western Sahara

Since our tenure at the US Embassy in Morocco (1998 – 2001) and subsequently as advisors to the Moroccan government, we have shared one point in common with Anna Theofilopoulou and Jacob Mundy in their October 27 article on the Middle East Channel, "US Middle East talks — a model for Western Sahara?" If there ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Since our tenure at the US Embassy in Morocco (1998 – 2001) and subsequently as advisors to the Moroccan government, we have shared one point in common with Anna Theofilopoulou and Jacob Mundy in their October 27 article on the Middle East Channel, "US Middle East talks — a model for Western Sahara?" If there is going to be a solution to the three-decades-old problem in the Western Sahara, the US government will have to commit the full weight of its diplomacy and good relations with the various parties to bring this issue to an equitable conclusion. However, our own view on how best to resolve this problem, beyond agreeing on the need for US leadership, differs broadly from Ms. Theofilopoulou and Mr. Mundy.

Contrary to the process advocated by the authors, the framework for such a solution was established during our tenure at the US Embassy in Rabat, when the Clinton Administration, with strong support from then Secretary Albright, initiated a fundamental shift in its policy.  This new direction abandoned the futile, decade-long United Nations effort to reach an agreed voter list for a referendum on the future of the territory. Down this road there could be only winners and losers and a guaranteed recipe for continued regional tensions between Morocco and Algeria. Winners and losers would serve neither the US and allied interest in regional stability nor prospects for the kind of Maghreb-wide cooperation and integration now so clearly lacking and necessary in the face of increasing terrorist threats spreading in the Sahel.

In place of the hopelessly deadlocked referendum process, the US began to encourage a reasonable political compromise that would deny both parties their maximal objectives, full integration of the territory for Morocco and total independence for the Polisario Front and their patron Algeria. Instead, the US formula for compromise, backed also by former Secretary James Baker who was then the UN’s Personal Envoy, embraced continued sovereignty in the territory for Morocco, while granting the people of the region a broad mandate for self governance through autonomy.  Such a formula also would allow both sides to obtain their core objectives within the framework of international law and practice legitimate forms of "self-determination." We outlined the evolution in US thinking that led to this fundamental shift in policy in the most recent edition of the MIT International Review and we encourage those who have a serious interest in this issue to read that article.

This compromise has been embraced by subsequent Bush and Obama administrations, leading Washington foreign policy think tanks and policy experts, and bipartisan majorities of the US House and Senate, who have called on those administrations to be more actively engaged "in both word and deeds" to encourage a solution to the Western Sahara based on this formula. Therein lays the rub — in both "word and deeds".

So why so little progress? The United States has not yet made clear enough to all parties concerned that it means what it says when it publicly endorses the kind of compromise political solution advanced by Morocco in April 2007. This solution was strongly encouraged by three US administrations which consistently termed it "serious and credible." Instead, the current administration gives the impression that it wants it both ways by offering public endorsement of this approach and suggesting the status quo is untenable, while at the same time taking a very back seat to a UN mediation process that has produced no visible results after four rounds of direct talks and multiple trips to the region by the current Personal Envoy, former US Ambassador Chris Ross.

After almost two years of stalemate, the Obama Administration now needs to recognize that without committed leadership from Washington, little more can be expected. What can be done? It is essential that the Obama administration state clearly that there is really only one viable formula for a solution and then begin to work in that direction. Failure here only encourages stalling from those hoping for a different outcome.

Washington recognizes that compromise is essential to a win-win solution. However, to date only Morocco with strong US encouragement and promises of support, has abandoned its original goal of fully integrating Western Sahara into the larger nation. Algeria and the Polisario have refused to budge from their own winner-take-all position, encouraged by the ambivalence Washington has subsequently demonstrated. The Obama administration needs to make clear to them that this unwillingness to reach a reasonable compromise is unacceptable. We outlined a number of practical steps that could be taken by Washington to demonstrate this resolve in our MIT article. We remain hopeful that the Obama administration will consider this advice and move this problem forward rather than continue a course of action that simply substitutes meaningless process for genuine progress.

Edward Gabriel was former US Ambassador to Morocco. Robert Holley was former Counselor for Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Rabat and currently is Executive Director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy.  MACP distributes this information on behalf of the Government of Morocco.  Additional information is available at the Justice Department in Washington, DC

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